Drawn to what they imagine

Mark Oppenheimer has an article in the Atlantic piquantly titled The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side.

Eido Shimano is the founder of the contemporary Zen Buddhist network in the US. One night in 2010 a student at Dai Bosatsu, Shimano’s rural branch of the Zen Studies Society, stood up at the end of dinner and gave a rambling speech about secrecy, shame, and the need for openness.

Fred Forsyth, an artist who now lives in New York City, remembered that her speech “was very long, and she had clearly been preparing it.” She spoke of “authority” and “power,” and how she was “secretly in a relationship” with someone who wielded much more power than she did. As Daphna spoke, Forsyth realized that his fears were being confirmed. It was clear that Daphna was describing a prolonged sexual affair with Eido Shimano, who was sitting right there. A monk named Bonnie Shoultz recalled that Daphna was particularly upset that she’d had to keep the affair secret, for close to two years.

And she wasn’t the only one.

Daphna’s allegations, it turned out, were not the first hints that Shimano wasn’t the man his followers hoped he was, and that the world he had built was not what it seemed. One week earlier, the Zen Studies Society board had met to discuss allegations of several decades of sexual impropriety, allegations that had surfaced on the Internet.

The Internet!? Well then obviously they were false. True allegations are made only to the police, never on the Internet.

The charges were damning, and well sourced, and Shimano had not denied them. The board had drafted a new set of ethical guidelines, the text of which included an acknowledgment of past indiscretions by Shimano. The hope had been that this new ethics statement would resolve the online rumors, which largely referred to events many years in the past. But news of this more recent affair spread quickly, and it forced prompt action. On July 19, 2010, Shimano resigned from the board of the Zen Studies Society and said that he would step down as abbot in 2012.

Oh. So it turns out that allegations of sexual predation can be taken seriously even without police involvement. How astonishing.

But in early August 2010, I got an get e-mails from a member of the sanghawho believed that Shimano’s phased retirement, with attendant honors, dinners, and valedictory speeches, would only keep forestall the necessary healing in the sangha.

Because if the phased retirement goes with heaps of honors and flattery, then there’s no real acknowledgement of the harm done. This is always the problem when people who do harm don’t acknowledge the harm they’ve done.

This member hoped that, as a journalist who covered religion, I would tell the world about Shimano’s behavior. On August 20, 2010, I wrote an article for The New York Times in which I described the online allegations, recounted Daphna’s bombshell at Dai Bosatsu, and quoted several sources discussing the board’s deliberations. My article seemed to hasten Shimano’s departure: on September 7, he announced in a letter that rather than waiting until 2012, he would step down as abbot at the end of the year.

But he’s fighting back.

…he is currently suing his old society for the pension that he says he is owed, but which the society’s new leadership says he forfeited with his decades of bad behavior. In response to those charges, Shimano is arguing that, first, he was never the womanizer that he is alleged to be, and second, even if he was, that is no grounds to void his contract. According to Shimano, sex with students is not a violation of Buddhist precepts. By sleeping with a student, he now says, he might have been doing her a favor.

Shimano’s defense, as outrageous as it may sound to some, is worth inspecting. Not because I side with Shimano, but because his views of sexuality are widely held in certain precincts of American Buddhism. In this country, we have learned the hard way that religiosity is no guarantor of morality. But many Americans still imagine that Buddhists are the good kind of religious people—or that they are not religious at all, just “spiritual.” Buddhists, they know, or think they know, do not have the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim beliefs in “dualism,” in good and evil; they are not censorious, always worried about sin and shame. Drawn to what they imagine is a kindler, gentler way of being, imported from a more pacific part of the world, Buddhists themselves, confronted with the worst things a teacher can do, may choose to be willfully naive.

Which describes how this always goes. Drawn to what they imagine is a better, cleverer / funnier / wiser / more skeptical way of being, fans / followers / admirers themselves, confronted with the worst things a comedian / actor / football player / skeptic / atheist can do, may choose to be willfully naive.




  1. culuriel says

    I checked, and this is the same guy who wrote about misogyny in the Atheism/Skeptic community… Nice to see he’s also documenting this.

  2. says

    Ah, yes he is, I should have said that. I’m so familiar with the fact that I forget it’s not universally familiar. (Is there a name for that? There should be.) (Just basic Other Minds Failure, I guess. Universal Knowledge Fallacy.)

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    One victim rationalized that, by not reporting, the movement would remain attractive to more women, which would then reduce the patriarchal violations.

    Parallels to TAM are screaming in the back of my head.

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